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The Legacy of Milwaukee County Parks

How forward-thinking public policy and good design beautified our community

Jun. 13, 2017
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One hallmark of Milwaukee County’s distinctive parks is that they reflect the native landscape. Preserving waterways and woodlands as public spaces also has been positive for the region’s overall ecology. Charles B. Whitnall is often credited with promoting this naturalistic approach, specifically with his 1923 countywide parks-and-parkways plan. Nonetheless, others advanced such concepts before he did. 

Milwaukee can add another name to its roster of trailblazing environmentalists and landscape designers. A comprehensive new book, Warren H. Manning: Landscape Architect and Environmental Planner, includes a chapter about the Massachusetts native’s contributions to Milwaukee parks. Manning (1860-1938) first came here with Frederick Law Olmsted, who was designing three parks, starting around 1892. Olmsted, considered the father of American parks, was approaching retirement; Manning, nearly 40 years his junior, was his knowledgeable planting-design supervisor. Like Olmsted, Manning also eventually managed a far-flung national practice and exerted major influence on the growing professions of landscape architecture and urban planning.

After Manning launched his own firm in 1896, he designed a dozen Milwaukee projects, including for the city’s nascent parks commission, the Downer Women’s College (now part of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and the Pabst Family estate. During two decades, he worked on more than 60 Wisconsin projects. Despite all that, Manning has little name recognition here. In any case, few landscape designers become household names. Their legacies are often blurred by neglect or nature’s vagaries, or even erased by bulldozers. That was the fate of Manning’s most celebrated Milwaukee contribution—the Sunken Garden that graced Mitchell Park for eight decades until its removal in the mid-1980s.

Manning started working as a boy in the renowned nursery owned by his father, Jacob Warren Manning, in Reading, Mass. He joined Olmsted’s firm in 1888 and his expertise quickly made him a valued team member who reported directly to Olmsted, according to Robin Karson, one of the book’s editors.

In the chapter on Milwaukee’s parks, William Grundmann wrote, “While the Olmsted firm outlined the original park system in broad strokes, it was Manning who filled in the details.” Surviving legacies include stands of venerable trees in Lake and Washington parks.

The First Environmental Planner 

Manning played a major role in planning the National Parks System and was one of 11 founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects, which first met in New York in 1899. Karson writes that he was also “the first environmental planner” in the U.S. and developed concepts that were the underpinnings of what’s now known Geographic Information Systems (GIS). 

Karson says Manning was a pioneer in two principal areas: resource-based design and planning, and community-based participatory design. Also, like Olmsted, Manning envisioned how his landscapes would evolve far into the future. As adviser to Milwaukee’s Park Commission, Manning was the bridge between Olmsted—whose design concepts informed the city’s early parks—and Whitnall, who built upon those foundations as the father of Milwaukee County Parks.  

The book does not say whether Manning knew Whitnall. However, both were steeped in horticulture from childhood and took ecological approaches to landscape design when Victorian formalism was still the rage. Manning’s consultation on public projects in Milwaukee concluded as the early designed parks were being completed, around 1905. He worked on 1,600 projects throughout the U.S., from modest gardens to large estates to entire cities. He also mentored many young landscape architects, including Dan Kiley, who designed gardens for the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and Milwaukee Art Museum.

This book (illustrated beautifully with vintage and contemporary photographs) traces the evolution of American landscape design through the work of a visionary who helped shaped ideas as well as terrain. Notably, just in the years Manning worked for Olmsted, he also supervised final plantings for the Chicago World’s Fair, helped envision what became the incomparable Biltmore Estate near Asheville, N.C., and mediated thorny planting-design dilemmas along Boston’s Muddy River.

Warren Manning’s Milwaukee Parks Legacy

EAST SIDE 

Lake Park

Located along a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan from North Avenue to Kenwood Boulevard and bordering Lincoln Memorial Drive. Parking is available in lots accessed by Newberry Boulevard and Lake Park Road, and along adjacent streets.

A crown jewel of Milwaukee County Parks, Lake Park’s meandering pathways and scenic vistas showcase Frederick Law Olmsted design principles. However, Warren Manning was the planting designer and oversaw the park’s development for Olmsted’s firm. Many trees in the 138-acre park date back to its origins. Lake Park’s ravines embody what Manning and others called “wild gardens”—landscapes designed with a naturalistic aesthetic, including plants native to an area. They afford an escape from urban bustle.

Milwaukee County Parks continues to emphasize the planting and protection of native species in the park. Volunteers from Lake Park Friends remove invasive buckthorn, burdock and garlic mustard; their ongoing efforts are a key reason the park’s natural areas remain ecologically healthy.

Newberry Boulevard

Located between Lake Drive and Oakland Avenue, two blocks south of Locust Avenue.

Although Manning’s role in Newberry Boulevard’s development is unclear, this linear greenway was planned by Olmsted as a graceful link between Lake Park and what was originally called River Park (now Riverside). Newberry was meant to extend the park experience and enhance property values.

Riverside Park

Located along the Milwaukee River’s east bank and bordered by Oakland and Bartlett avenues and Park and Locust streets; intersected by the Oak Leaf Trail. Parking available in lots at the western end of Park Avenue and along adjacent streets.

Much of Riverside Park has been sliced and diced, making Olmsted’s original design less apparent. The main exception is the woodland west of the Oak Leaf Trail, and it’s likely that Manning’s planting contributions remain evident. The Urban Ecology Center (UEC) has been restoring this forest by replacing invasive species with native plants. The woodland also leads to the riverfront, which is also being re-established. Originally called River Park, the still-clean river was a popular site for swimming and picnicking. 

And consider this historic link, Karson writes that Manning introduced the concept of “Community Days,” in which volunteers collectively planted a public landscape, often within a day or two. UEC likewise took that approach, albeit over a longer period, in planting the Rotary Centennial Arboretum, a “wild garden” extension of Riverside.

SOUTH SIDE

Mitchell Park

Bordered by Layton Boulevard, Pierce Street and the Menomonee Valley. Parking is available near Layton Boulevard entrance. Additional bicycle and pedestrian access offered via a Hank Aaron State Trail or Pierce Street. 

Mitchell Park may be Manning’s most definitive local design legacy, because he oversaw the entire project. His Sunken Garden, one of Milwaukee’s most celebrated landscape designs, was completed in 1904 to complement the park’s original 1898 Victorian glasshouse. It featured elegant, colorful, formal plantings surrounding a 360-foot-long by 82-foot-wide “water mirror.” The garden in what was nicknamed Flower Park was removed due to Milwaukee County Parks’ budgetary cutbacks.

Outlines of the garden’s structure remain—stairways, stone walls and mature trees. There has been talk of installing permanent sports fields in this area, which would further remove traces of this masterwork, foreclosing options to create more horticultural ties with “the Domes,” the park’s current glasshouses. Photographic displays of the 61-acre park’s early days are displayed in the lagoon pavilion, next to public restrooms.

The Manning-designed lagoon remains the park’s main natural area, although the edges are riddled with litter. Anglers still use the pond and shaded picnic areas on the park’s north side are popular. A hillside amphitheater faces a brick performing stage. Other parts of Mitchell have been carved up for Journey House’s Packers Field, a playground area, and baseball diamond.

Kosciuszko Park

Bordered by South Seventh and South 10th streets, Lincoln Avenue and Becher Street. Parking is available in a lot west of Seventh Street and on adjacent streets.

Kosciuszko was among Milwaukee’s first seven parks developed after its Board of Park Commissioners was formed in 1889. The 24-acre parcel boasted rolling terrain with oak and maple trees, which were retained. Commissioners hired Manning in 1903 to survey and revamp the park when it was expanded to its current 34 acres. He designed an expanded lagoon for boating and ice skating, as well as additional walks, lawn areas and plantings. Visible while traversing the Lincoln Avenue business corridor, the lagoon attracts flocks of birds and anglers. 

This much-used park serves many functions in one of Milwaukee’s densest neighborhoods. Pathways invite strolling and pastoral settings are ideal for picnics. Elementary school students from St. Josaphat Parish School use the playground for recess. People gather on benches near the park’s namesake statue and seasonally at the Pelican Cove Family Water Park. One drawback is that due to privatized major buildings with exclusive access, the primary public restrooms are portable toilets. 

Bonus Side Trip: Humboldt Park (bordering Howell and Oklahoma Avenues in Bay View) was developed at the same time as Kosciuszko and Mitchell parks, but without a professional designer. Grundmann wrote in a footnote: “Although there is no documentation that Manning worked on Humboldt Park, a purple beech tree, uncommon in southeastern Wisconsin but a signature in many Manning projects, suggests he advised on the abundant tree plantings there.” Trees for Mitchell Park were also grown in Humboldt.

WEST SIDE

Washington Park

Washington Park Bandshell

Bordered by Lloyd Street, Lisbon Avenue, North 40th Street, Vliet Street and Highway 41. Parking is available in lots off 40th and Lloyd streets and Washington Boulevard.  

Washington Park was designed by Olmsted as a regional destination around 1892. It was developed after have been cleared for farming. Thus, about 4,000 trees were planted within the first few years, presumably specified and overseen by Manning.

Although Washington Park’s outer areas have been given over to other uses—including a freeway dating to 1962—the 135-acre park’s center retains a seven-acre lagoon, wooded hills, and winding pathways—all Olmsted signatures. Summer concerts are hosted at the Art Deco bandshell and picnics areas are popular. Milwaukee County Parks enlisted Milwaukee-based Quorum Architects in 2000 to develop a revitalization plan based on original designs and community input. The county’s funding challenges pushed much of the plan to a back burner. Nonetheless, the Urban Ecology Center, which has leased the pavilion since 2007, community residents and others continue working with the county to activate the park and restore its glory. 

To view maps of all of Milwaukee County’s parks, visit county.milwaukee.gov

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